When we are introduced to Mr Birling, he comes across as a man who is quite pompous and arrogant. He is impressed by his status and the fact that he is on the cusp of furthering his prestige since he is due to be awarded a knighthood. He is opinionated and...
When we are introduced to Mr Birling, he comes across as a man who is quite pompous and arrogant. He is impressed by his status and the fact that he is on the cusp of furthering his prestige since he is due to be awarded a knighthood. He is opinionated and clearly believes that he is worldly-wise, as he freely dispenses advice to his son, Eric, and their guest, Gerald Croft, who has just announced his engagement to Sheila Birling. The family and Gerald have been celebrating the occasion when Inspector Goole arrives.
Mr Birling's response to the inspector is initially quite convivial and he offers him something to drink. The inspector refuses, saying that he is on duty. Mr Birling wastes no time in informing the inspector of his importance:
... I was an alderman for years—and lord mayor two years ago—and I’m still on the bench—so I know the Brumley police offices pretty well—and I thought I’d never seen you before.
Mr Birling assumes that the inspector is there for legal business since he is still on the bench. When he is informed of the real reason, that the inspector is investigating the horrible suicide of one Eva Smith, he becomes quite dismissive and impatient. The inspector then becomes more direct and asks Mr Birling if he knew the girl and shows him a photograph of the deceased.
Mr Birling recalls that he had fired Eva about eighteen months ago but refuses to accept any responsibility for her death. He is fairly rude when the inspector becomes more particular and wishes to know why he had refused Eva and his other employees' requests for a raise, stating that it was none of his business.
When Mr Birling realises that neither his intimidating stance, nor his status, mean anything to the inspector, he presents him with a subtle threat:
How do you get on with our chief constable, colonel Roberts?...
...Perhaps I ought to warn you that he's an old friend of mine, and that I see him fairly frequently. We play golf together sometimes up at the west Brumley.
He is suggesting here that he could get the inspector into a spot of bother if he should continue his harassment. The inspector, however, keeps a cool head and is completely unperturbed.
When Sheila arrives and enquires when they are going to the drawing-room, Mr Birling mentions that they are almost done and will be there soon. The inspector, however, corrects him, saying that there is still some ground to cover. Mr Birling becomes annoyed, saying that he has said as much as he can. When Sheila prepares to return to the drawing-room, the inspector calls her back. This angers Mr Birling, who instructs the inspector that he should not draw her into the mess he has been talking about. He says:
Look here, inspector, I consider this uncalled-for and officious. I've half a mind to report you. I've told you all I know—and it doesn't seem to me very important—and now there isn't the slightest reason why my daughter should be dragged into this unpleasant business.
Mr Birling's later tone changes somewhat when he learns that inspector Goole has not come to see him alone and that it is his intention to speak to everyone. He asks whether the inspector is sure of all his facts, and Goole assures him that he is with some of them. When the inspector emphasizes that Eva Smith is dead and Sheila infers that he is implying that they are responsible, Mr Birling asks if he and the inspector cannot discuss the matter alone in some corner. The suggestion sounds sly and underhanded.
Mr Birling later blames the inspector for having made a nasty mess of their celebration when Sheila becomes distraught on learning about her role in Eva's misery. The inspector, however, reminds him of the mess someone else left behind when she committed suicide.
Throughout the play, Mr Birling does not change his adversarial role much and, as such, becomes Inspector Goole's chief antagonist. At one point later in the play, he declares:
Inspector, I've told you before, I don't like the tone nor the way you're handling this inquiry. And I don't propose to give you much rope.
Sheila notes, insightfully, that the inspector has been giving them a rope with which to hang themselves.
In the latter parts of the play, whilst the inspector is still present, Mr Birling plays a somewhat secondary role, intermittently coming to the defence of his family. It is only when he discovers Eric's complicity in the whole affair that he is once stirred. He expresses his disgust at his son's actions. He eventually realizes that his family's good name has been tarnished and that he will never get his knighthood. In desperation, he unhappily tells Inspector Goole:
Look, Inspector—I'd give thousands—yes, thousands—
The inspector then tells him that he is offering the money at the wrong time. In summing up, the inspector tells them that they cannot even apologize to Eva for what they have done to her. Before he leaves he reminds the Birlings:
...We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.